Max Planck Research Group Evolutionary Developmental Dynamics

Max Planck Research Group Evolutionary Developmental Dynamics

Our research group aims to address three central questions in contemporary evolutionary developmental biology:

1) How can a defined set of conserved genes orchestrate the formation of fundamentally different structures, and how does morphological variability arise?
2) How did vertebrate cell types evolve, and to what extent did de novo genes contribute to this process?
3) What is the basis of co-evolution and co-development of the brain and skull?



1. Vertebrate morphological (craniofacial) divergence

To get a mechanistic understanding of this phenomenon, we investigate the divergence of cis- and trans-regulatory landscapes along the ontogeny of several vertebrate species. Our primary research models are mouse, chick, zebrafish and small-spotted catshark. 

We apply single-cell omics technologies to comprehend how divergence in cis-regulation rewires existing gene regulatory networks and generates differential gene expression patterns along embryonic development, representing the core of morphological evolution. As a readout of the developmental divergence, we assess the morphology of the craniofacial region. Our approach is complemented by micro-computed tomography, morphometrics, whole-mount imaging and a spectrum of conventional molecular and developmental biology methods. 

2. Cell type evolution

We strive to comprehend the molecular evolution of cell types and uncover to what extent de novo genes contribute to cell type emergence. Cell type represents the basic evolutionary unit driving the appearance of novel morphological and functional traits. The emergence of new cell types relies on the evolution of their genetic programs, propelling the assembly of novel molecular complexes and acquiring new biological functions. We integrate phylostratigraphy with single-cell transcriptomics to estimate the evolutionary age of cell type-specific transcriptomes, trace their step-wise assembly along the phylogeny, and identify the ancestral cell type transcriptome. This research strategy enables us to explore fundamental processes powering the macroevolutionary innovations and transitions driven by the evolution of cell types.


3. Co-evolution and co-development of the brain and skull

The vertebrate head comprises a spectrum of tissues, sensitive sensory organs, and the brain, all integrated with the intricately shaped skull. The structures arise in a four-dimensional process of morphogenesis, and their origin, growth and integration are tightly coordinated throughout embryogenesis. 

An evident evolutionary and developmental link exists between the brain and the skull. This is evidenced by multiple congenital craniofacial abnormalities that are accompanied by disorders of the central nervous system or the sensory organs and by a series of coordinated adaptations of these two modules.

We investigate how the emerging brain and skull communicate and coordinate their growth during embryonic development. Detailed knowledge of the underlying molecular interplay enables us to comprehend how the core signals were calibrated along the phylogeny to generate a spectrum of skull shapes and how the nervous structures contribute to the facial variability found intra- and interspecies.

Main expertise and methodologies

Craniofacial development, vertebrate models, ontogeny, phylogeny, cell type evolution, gene regulatory networks, single-cell RNA and ATAC sequencing, advanced bioinformatics, multiplexed RNA-FISH and IHC whole-mount imaging, functional validations, micro-computed tomography, morphometrics.



Our international team has interdisciplinary expertise and an extensive methodological skillset. We built an excellent collaborative network and work together to make fundamental discoveries in the Evo-Devo field. Motivated and talented students and researchers are welcome to contact us about the possibility of joining our team or collaborating.

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